Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Is Woody Allen / Is Not Woody Allen

Because the stretch of the 101 that separates Santa Barbara from Los Angeles and its hipper environs apparently runs long enough to warrant a lack of good movies in Santa Barbara, I saw Woody Allen’s newest, “Match Point,” for the first time only last night, Be forewarned: I have opinions about it, and many of them hinge on significant, shocking plot points that you’re better off not reading about if you haven’t seen the movie. I’m not sure I liked the movie all that much; however, critics have been doing backflips for it and saying it may be Allen’s best since “Annie Hall.” Thus, there’s a chance that if you see it, you may like it.

So if you’d rather catch this movie on your own, stop reading now.

As I’m sure many reviews have noted, there’s very little about Woody Allen’s “Match Point” that earns the adjective “Woody Allen.” “Annie Hall” is quintessential Woody Allen. “Hannah and Her Sisters,” too. And to me, whenever I hear Woody Allen’s name I think of “Mighty Aphrodite,” the first of his films I ever saw.

“Match Point” is not at all Woody Allen. It’s more like the Coen Brothers, if anybody. It’s sleek and cold and logical and calculating. It’s not funny. It’s not New York. And, most notably, it’s not at all neurotic. What seems like it could easily start as a comedy of manners or a rom-com clone of his earlier works eventually evolves into a rather unexpected thriller. And for that, Woody Allen should be credited. I would have never thought that Woody Allen had it in him to make a movie like this, especially so far into his career, so far into already having made a name for himself.

But while everybody else seems to love the movie, I have a huge problem with it. I don’t buy it. I can’t.

The plot, for those of you who read the spoiler warning and proceeded ahead anyway, involves a man in a seeming paradox. The main character, Chris (Jonathan Rhys Myers, a posing mannequin on good days) is married to a wealthy, attractive Londoner, Chloe (Emily Mortimer, who you may remember playing the Neve Campbell clone from “Scream 3”). However, he’s been having an affair with Nola Rice (Scarlett Johansson), a would-be actress from Colorado who formerly was engaged to Chloe’s brother. When Nola becomes pregnant and demands that he dump his wife — and, thus, his comfortable lifestyle — Chris murders her in a way that makes it appear that she died in a botched burglary.

To me, Chris’s solution to the dilemma was rash, impulsive and overdramatic. No one in his situation would chose murder over adultery, no matter how high the stakes were. (And yes, one could argue that because “Match Point” has major Greek drama themes, much like “Mighty Aphrodite” did, that characters in “Match Point” act in the rash, impulsive and overdramatic manner traditional of Greek tragedy, in which the only two solutions to any given problem are murder or suicide. It’s a valid point, but I’ve always maintained that people in Greek tragedies act hormone-addled teenagers, with everything being the end of the world and all that. Antigone, sadly, is no anomaly. And, sadly, I’ve never really bought the emotional extremes people fly to in Greek drama, either. But that’s another argument. My point, as far as “Match Point” is concerned is that this kind of life-or-death, do-or-die mentality is even more out of place in a modern setting.) Had Chris not murdered Nola, he could have simply divorced Chloe and continued the relationship with Nola. He may have been less happy, but his life would have been far from terrible. He may have even been able to find a similar job to the investment banker one Chloe’s father had hooked him up with.

I suppose, also, that if Chris and Nola had shared this steamy, riveting passion — the kind of affair that could actually drive people to murder — I may have believed Chris’s decision a little more. But whereas most of the film’s dialogue seemed good — polished, but in a realistic way, as you’d expect from wealthy upper-class Londoners — the exchanges between flirting Chris and Nola fell really flat. The dialogue sounded stilted, like it was improvised by nervous junior high students at their first boy-girl dance. “Your lips look luscious,” he tells Nola. (Or it was something equally vapid.) Eventually, they two bone, but to me it felt more like they did so simply because they were bored of talking to each other.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

Because I didn’t seem like Chris was acting plausibly, I couldn’t buy him as a person. If he’s supposed to be a sociopath, then I can’t relate to him. If I can’t relate to Chris, then there’s no one else to relate to in the movie since all the other characters are underwritten. And if the last third of the movie consists of Chris telling lies upon lies — to Chloe, to the police, to himself — then I can only sit there, cringing as he digs himself more and more deeply into shit. It’s embarrassing to watch someone else lie like that, especially when I feel they’re covering up a murder in the shoddiest way possible.

That aside, two other point struck me about the film.

There’s a nasty, xenophobic reading of this movie. Like I said before, fairly little in this Woody Allen movie is all that Woody Allen. Unless I had read his name in the opening credits, I would have thought that some snobbish Briton had directed it, as the movie offers a depiction of the London upper-class threatened by outsiders like Nola, an American, or Chris, and Irishman.

Let me explain: Chloe and her family are well off and very happy, if oblivious to actual work and the woes of the world around them. Then you meet Chris, then Nola. Chris has pulled up his life from the nothing of poor Ireland by being a hard-working tennis player. He worms into the upper class, only to show his roots by committing murder, just to maintain his new high standing in London society. Nola also comes from humble beginnings, but she moves to London for a chance at acting. In contrast to the demure, na├»ve Chloe, Nola is this brash, blond, busty thing that screams like a madwoman when she finally realized that Chris will never leave his wife for her. She even goes as far as to use her pregnancy to blackmail Chris. In short, manners can’t be taught. They can only be bred into you. And for the purposes of “Match Point,” they can only be bred into you in the wealthier suburbs of London.

Secondly, the plot of this film ratchets up Woody Allen’s creepo factor to eleven. There’s a conceit among writers that anything a written is a little bit autobiographical, a little representative of what’s inside the writer. Aside form his films, the part of Woody Allen most widely known to the world is his affair with his adopted Korean daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, while Allen was married to Mia Farrow. This situation can easily be mapped onto the characters in “Match Point,” with Allen as the protagonist, Farrow being the well-off wife and Previn being the object of lust that threatens to pull the marriage apart. Woody and Soon-Yi ended up a bit better off, of course, but if I were Soon-Yi I’d be just a little cautious around the Woodster. (Go Ka-nicks.)

Oh, and Nola’s last name is “Rice.” Really, Woody? Yuck.

In the end, I guess “Match Point” gave me something to think about, even if I ultimately decided that I didn’t like it. It’s well-acted and beautifully shot. All in all, it’s far from terrible. I didn’t like it, though, and I suppose my griping could be more of a matter of me missing out on the fun everyone seems to be deriving from this movie. Maybe I should go watch “Annie Hall” again.

(And while I’m at it, a footnote about spoilers: Personally, I don’t mind too much when film plots are spoiled for me. The people who let knowledge of a significant plot event ruin a film for them must admit that they’re watching movies only at a superficial level — that is, riding the rising and falling action of the plot arch like a roller coaster ride, without stopping to appreciate the multitude of other factors that make a movie worth watching, like dialogue, acting, cinematography and all that. If you want the thrill of a shocking twist of the plot, watch a soap opera. I’d hope those watching something like “Match Point,” however — a film one might describe as “intelligent,” “provocative,” “stuffy” and “really, really British” — to appreciate that people have worked very hard to make other factors just as significant as the plot.)

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3:20 PM

    you know, i watched this movie the other day because i do really like woody allen most of the time, and i was initially pleased by the understated britishness of the film. however, i think it was when he did the whole dad in law's hunting rifle in the tennis bag thing did i think, 'yikes.' plus, my dumb-american-bitch-o-meter was really going off with all of the ridiculous lines they fed her: "i'm not beautiful, i'm just sexy" blah blah blah. nobody cares, scarlett johannson. i think that if he had put in some more ass shots, i would have been less bothered. however, it was disturbing, to say the least.